Archive for October, 2009

Pound of Feathers, Pound of Gold

Posted in GIGO, Useful Aphorisms with tags , on October, 2009 by melendwyr

Which weighs more: a pound of feathers, or a pound of gold?

Close consideration of this riddle – and the conditions under which people tend to get it wrong – is helpful in understanding the limits of human rationality. It is a specific example which leads us to general principles of rationality failure.

These sorts of riddles and similar interpersonal language tricks (such as “Stupid says what?”) are especially popular among children but not among adults. Why is this the case? Partly because adults are more likely to have previously encountered and become familiar with their patterns, but there are other factors – including one very relevant one. Children tend to have less-developed capacities of impulse control.

It takes very little analysis to discover the ‘trick’ in the question; the concepts involved are relatively simple. But we’re confronted with the fact that people do answer it incorrectly, and that by manipulating aspects of the context in which the question is delivered, we can significantly increase the chance people will fall for it. What does this imply? That analysis is not being conducted in the erroneous cases, and that context is a contributing factor to whether people successfully engage in conceptual analysis. Specifically, that context determines whether people will counter their impulses long enough for analysis to be completed.

The key to these sorts of riddles is time pressure. If people feel free to take as much time as they like thinking over the question, they rarely fall for the trick. But if they’re trying to answer rapidly, they’ll screw up. Examples of situations that often result in such behavior include: competing against others to see who can be correct first, trying to demonstrate competence by investing little effort in answering, or encountering the question as part of a limited-duration examination. If several superficially-similar questions whose answer depends on retrieving facts from memory rather than performing logical analysis of the question are asked before the riddle is presented, that also tends to result in a wrong response.

The error occurs because of our weight-related associations with the concepts of ‘feathers’ and ‘gold’, our conditioned assumptions about the sorts of questions people are likely to ask, and a failure to inhibit the first impulses towards response. Feathers are far less dense than gold; any given volume of feathers will weigh far less than the same volume of the metal. Questions about a property rarely contain their own answers in a trivial way – we do not expect the defined quantities in the question to be equivalent relative to the property being asked about. And – this is the most vital aspect – it takes longer for our brains to process the question at a conceptual level than it does to activate our associations.

In the state of nature, organisms are often under intense pressure to produce results quickly. If they take too long, the resource they’re trying to exploit may be taken by a competitor – or worse, they may become exploited resources by a predator. So stimulus-response methods which produce generally-useful reactions tend to be favored over extremely accurate and precisely analysis that takes longer. As a consequence, natural modes of though available to humans favor rapid responses more than rigorous correctness – and in much the same way that the limits of our visual processing systems lead to optical illusions, which can be understood and thus constructed, the limits of our conceptual processing lead to inherent tendencies towards fallacies of reason, which can be exploited to produce riddles and language gags.

Just as other aspects of our behavioral response involve the repression of rudimentary reflexes, our thinking involves the inhibition of associational activation and reflexive reactions. The “more advanced” cognitive functions can take place only because the simpler, less resource-intensive, and faster functions are prevented from initiating responses before them.

In the wrestling match between the modern functions and the ancient ones they try to control, the more subtle and advanced features are at a distinct disadvantage. Which brings us to the next post.

Thoughts on Hospitalism

Posted in Medicine with tags , , , , on October, 2009 by melendwyr

A few people have commented on the similarity between puerperal fever, the cause of which was discovered by Ignaz Semmelweis, and hospitalism.

There are certain regions of overlap between the two examples. In both cases, a great deal of suffering and death was iatrogenic – that is, caused by doctors and their treatments. And in both cases, the problem was mostly resolved once the causes were generally understood. The differences are important, however: puerperal fever was considered a normal, if very serious, risk. Hospitalism deaths were always considered to be a morbid deviation from a healthy baseline. Of greater concern is nature of the relative causes: the high incidence of puerperal fever was the result of doctors not knowing about germ theory more than any particular thing they did; although midwives were far less likely to conduct internal investigations without pressing need, a large amount of direct physical contact is pretty inevitable. Hospitalism, in contrast, did not occur in anything approaching a ‘natural’ post-birth environment. It was caused entirely by the interventions of medical professionals. Thus, every attempt to improve things made them worse instead.

Failing to prevent harm, and actively inflicting harm, are distinctly separable.

Seasonal Complications

Posted in Doom on October, 2009 by melendwyr

There were complications associated with the six inches of wet, heavy snow we received last night. Given that the local arboreal landscaping has not yet lost their leaves, large amounts of snow accumulated on branches. The resulting destruction not only damaged hundreds of trees around town and caused major traffic impediments, it broke a number of power lines. Much of town is without power, and even the traffic signals are no longer functioning.

I only hope that the power is back before I return home tonight. If I can’t get my heat to function properly, my pipes could freeze – and that would be extremely bad.


Posted in Doom on October, 2009 by melendwyr

It’s snowing. October 15th, and it’s already snowing.

It’s not even Halloween yet, for crying out loud, and it’s snowing!

Anything people had left in the community garden – and there were quite a lot of squash and gourds left lying about – has probably frozen solid. Everything frost-tender has died. We had a cold, short growing season and now an early freeze – this is just terrible. I hate to think what this implies about the upcoming winter.


Posted in Reviews, Things You Should Read with tags on October, 2009 by melendwyr

Have I mentioned the webcomic “pictures for sad children” yet? It’s wonderfully horrifying. There is clearly something deeply wrong with its author, John Campbell.

start w/what you can handle

Kung Fu Movie Reviews

Posted in Reviews with tags , , , , , , on October, 2009 by melendwyr

I’ve recently viewed three modern classics of Chinese cinema which had been recommended to me: Hero, House of Flying Daggers, and Curse of the Golden Flower.

Hero had beautiful landscapes and gorgeous cinematography, but those landscapes were barren and sere – rather like the emotional context of the film. The story, while having many meritorious points, argues both directly and indirectly for unification under a sole authority. It is both authoritarian and patriotic – it’s easy to see how the cooperation of the Chinese government was acquired for the scenes at the Imperial Palace. It’s certainly a good film, and its political overtones don’t occlude the quality of the storytelling, but it is somewhat jarring. Strikingly, Zhang Yimou himself denied having any political message. It may be more a matter of baseline assumptions that inform the content of the film than an attempt to convey information.

House of Flying Daggers struck me as a more interesting narrative with even more gorgeous scenery. The plot twists were carried off better than those of Hero in my opinion. Both movies were strongly influenced by the traditional Chinese love of nature scenes, but those in Flying Daggers were lusher and not as stark. The plot is tragic, but in a way I found to be more satisfying. Brighter and cheerier scenes, an extraordinarily creepy brothel, and a haunting bamboo forest make this a memorable movie.

Curse of the Golden Flower… well, it’s something like “Titus Andronicus” crossed with “Hamlet”, only without the happy ending. I have never appreciated Aesthetic Minimalism as much as I did after viewing this movie’s representation of the interior of the Emperor’s court – it takes baroque elaboration and vivid color to the point of garishness. The royal family is doomed, treacherous, incestuous, and proud. Their machinations tear their world apart, and ultimately no one wins. And they might not even be able to bring themselves to realize it.

Hospitalism: A Failure to Thrive

Posted in Doom, Medicine with tags , on October, 2009 by melendwyr

In medicine, it’s important to distinguish between a disease and a syndrome. Syndromes are collections of symptoms characteristically associated with each other – they don’t necessarily share the same causes.

One noteworthy syndrome of infancy and early childhood is called ‘failure to thrive’. The child’s development and growth fails to proceed normally, sometimes for obvious reasons such as inadequate nutrition or a major illness sapping resources. But sometimes the cause is less obvious.

Hospitalism was the name coined in 1895 to describe a phenomenon that often struck infants and young children who were hospitalized in the late 19th century. Despite receiving the highest standards of care, they were weak and sickly. They didn’t grow properly. They died at rates exceedingly high even for the norms of the time. And no one knew why.

Heroic measures were taken. Infants were isolated from their mothers, kept under constant supervision in specially-sealed incubators. It didn’t help. Children continued to die, and nothing anyone could do seemed effective at protecting them from the mysterious contagion that claimed their lives. It had been noted that Hospitalism struck at the most modern facilities and wealthiest parents but not at the children of the poor and isolated, but the significance of this fact was not recognized until the 1930’s. Then the common factor responsible for the failure to thrive was identified: the modern, up-to-date, sterile, and thoroughly unnatural treatment afforded the young was itself the cause.

It is not well-known why bonding and physical interaction between caregivers – particularly mothers – and infants is necessary for health and even survival, but it is thought to be the result of Darwinian calculations. Infants are cheap in terms of resources devoted to them – it would take many long years before they are capable of reproductive contributions. Mothers can produce more offspring relatively quickly. It follows that it is more important to preserve the life of a mother than the life of an infant if the lives of both are in jeopardy. Under conditions where a mother cannot spend time caring for a new infant, the principles of selection determine, it’s better for the infant to die so that the mother can focus on preserving her own life. So infants are programmed to self-terminate if they receive inadequate attention and stimulation.

Much as treating the weapon kept physicians from injuring their patients and was thus an ‘effective’ treatment, being poor meant that your parents had to take care of you and had no access to the ‘advanced’ standards of care that hurt the infants they were intended to keep safe. The doctors themselves were the problem – keeping them away from the infants was the solution.